Top 10 Actor Portrayals of Superman

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When Henry Cavill steps into the iconic role of Superman in Man of Steel, he is going to have some pretty big shoes (and tights) to fill. Many men have stepped forward to offer up their interpretation of ol’ Kal-El, and there are sure to be many more in the future. So, before Cavill makes his debut next week as the Big Blue Boy Scout, let’s analyze who hes done the best job of portraying Superman … so far.

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10. Brandon Routh (Superman Returns)

brandon-routh

There are people who would consider it disrespectful to Brandon Routh to be in the number 10 spot on this list. There are others who would consider an insult that Routh is on this list at all. The truth of the matter is that Bryan Singer included all of the necessary elements in Superman Returns for a Superman movie. By the time it was made though, perception of what a comic book movie was had changed. Singer made a loving homage (and in some way a continuation) of the original  Superman in the 1970’s and, had it been released before Batman Begins, the public might have taken to it better. However, that was not the case, grittiness and realism had become the super-norm, and poor Supes was seen as awkwardly out-of-touch.

Routh’s actual performance was more-than-serviceable and admirable, considering what he was doing. He was also not given a sequel to fully flesh out the character. In that vein, the number 10 spot seems appropriate for what was, as well as what may have been.

9. Tim Daly (Superman: The Animated Series and Justice League: Doom)

daly-superman

When Leonardo DiCaprio was asked about playing the character of  Jack in Titanic, he stated that the challenge of the character was to play him without any “quirks.” In giving a voice to Superman, you have to take the same approach and provide a voice that is authoritative and completely devoid quirkiness. Right or wrong, Superman has absolute certainty in the rightness of whatever he is doing. Tim Daly’s voice in Superman: The Animated Series reflects that sensibility. Actors are naturally quirky people to begin with, so this cannot be an easy voice to pull off. Daly, perhaps best known for his character on Wings, manages to get the correct tone, as well as the seemingly correct moral certainty.

8. Gerard Christopher (Superboy)

Superboy

In the wake of Smallville as well as later Superman efforts, the Superboy series of the late ’80s and early ’90s is often either forgotten or lost in the shuffle. This is a mistake. Gerard Christopher was brought in the second season of Superboy to replace John Haynes Newton (who you will not find on this list for very good reasons.) Christopher’s Superboy is responsible for bridging the super-gap of interest between the less-than-stellar Superman IV:  A Quest For Peace and the DC comic’s “Death of Superman” storyline, which re-ignited interest in the character. For that, Christopher deserves a lion’s share of the credit.

He was so good at the role, in fact, that he was almost cast in the lead role in Lois and Clark. He lost out when the producer found out he had done the role before, thereby saving viewers from all the confusion that would ensue from a talented guy reprising an already-recognizable role more than once. Heaven forbid.

7.  Danny Dark (Superfriends)

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For an entire generation of kids who grew up in the ’70s and ’80s, Danny Dark’s booming heroic voice was and will always be the voice of  Superman. Dark had a well-trained voice which was often used in commercials, announcing duties, and voice-overs. It is more than a little humorous when you realize that the same voice actor who did Superman’s voice is the same actor who majestically said “This Bud’s For You.”

Dark’s voice was also often used during the time period to tell you what upcoming programs were coming on. Honestly, what better voice to tell you to “Stay Tuned” for the upcoming program than the voice of Superman? The fact that Dark’s voice is imitated and even caricatured to this day is a testament to Dark’s voice’s enduring appeal.

6. Kirk Alyn (1948’s Superman)

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Kirk Alyn was the first man to play Superman on screen, in two 15-part serials in 1948 and 1950. The first serial was simply entitled Superman, and the second one was titled Atom Man Vs Superman. Fearing a typecasting (which occurred anyway,) Alyn turned down the role for the television series in 1951, allowing George Reeve to come in, take the job, and revolutionize the character.

Alyn’s contribution to the Superman mythos was consciously (or subconsciously) mimicked by other actors to follow. Alyn’s uses of the heroic pose from the comic, as well as his mannerisms, established what a live-action Superman should look like. By the ’70s, Alyn would finally come to terms with being typeast as Superman, appearing at comic book conventions and filming a cameo as Lois Lane’s father in 1978’s Superman movie.



5. Dean Cain (Lois And Clark : The New Adventures of Superman)

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In the ’90s, there seemed to be a real debate, not only in popular culture but culture in general, about whether the true definition of a man was the powerful Superman or the sensitive Clark Kent. Enter Dean Cain, the man who won the Lois And Clark role after Gerard Christopher was outed as having dared to play the super-role before.  Cain’s interpretation focused more on Kent than on Kal-el. Clark romanced Lois Lane just as much as Superman saved her. The subtlety and realism in Cain’s performance deserves a lot of credit, but is sadly also the reason his take is less memorable than perhaps some others.

4. Bud Collyer (1940’s Adventures of Superman)

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In an era when the dominant form of media was radio, Clayton “Bud” Collyer was Superman. Collyer was a trained singer who brought a unique perspective to playing Superman. As many of the actors who followed, Collyer distinguished himself by having different voices for Clark Kent and for Superman. He would use a timid, high-pitched tone for Kent, and switch to a lower full voice for Superman. It is also because of Collyer that we have “kryptonite,” which did not exist in the canon beforehand. In order to give Collyer occasional breaks, Krytonite was invented to weaken Superman for a few days.

Collyer also defined Superman by being the voice on all seventeen of the original Max Fleischer cartoons. Those cartoons would influence everything about Superman, as well as animation in general, for several decades.

3. Tom Welling (Smallville)

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The “no flights, no tights” policy of the Smallville series works both for and against Tom Welling. Through over a decade of a playing Clark Kent, Welling brought warmth, depth and a sort of folksy charm to an otherwise-stilted character. Welling’s Clark was a farm boy who ultimately had to pose in a suit in Metropolis, a side of Clark rarely seen in other performances.

The downside of “Clark with a few powers” though, is that the tights and flights are a rather essential part of the Superman mythos. If Welling was allowed to star in a full-on Superman movie, he might well be the unquestioned number one Kal-El of all time. As it stands though, a couple icons still best him.

2. Christopher Reeve (1978’s Superman)

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It’s almost impossible to look at Christopher Reeve as Superman without hearing the strains of John Williams’ theme song in your head. Brandon Routh’s entire performance in Superman Returns, while very good, appeared at times to be little more than an extended homage to Reeve’s performance. For so many, there would be no other “real” Superman other than Reeve.

Now, it is generally undeniable that the quality of the Reeve Superman films declined as the series went on. However, if Reeve was available, there never seemed to be any reason for anyone else to play the role. That is how ingrained and identifiable Reeve was with the role.

1. George Reeves (The Adventures of Superman)

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When George Reeves committed suicide, it was as if Superman himself had actually died. Reeves’ muscular build, square jaw and mannerisms were the epitome of not only Supes, but also Clark Kent as well. He was the model that all actors playing Superman are attempting to live up to, including Henry Cavill. Through six seasons attempting to live up to Superman, both on and off camera, Reeves seems to have literally given his life for his art. No one can remember him as anything else, and Reeves never got a real chance to show the world any other sides of himself. Ultimately, that makes Reeves an exceedingly tragic case, but it also puts Reeves undeniably on top of this list.


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11 Comments

  1. I would put Bud Collyer at number 3 ahead of Tom Welling. This is my opinion.

  2. I was first introduced to Superman by the George Reeves protrayal on television but respectfully disagree with the author. Christopher Reeve was the iconic portrayal. His Clark was loveable and self-effacing while his Superman was the heroic standard by which others are measured. George Reeves’ Clark Kent was a bit too sure of himself. A tough guy which might be good if he was merely portraying a self-assured reporter but did not mesh well with an individual trying to maintain a dual identity. My humble opinion.

    • Jim Ciscell on

      Unlike my argument on the performances of Batman of James Bond, I can honestly say that the top two here could have been either both number 1 or some sort of 1 and 1a. I watched the Reeve movies in the theaters growing up. I sought out the television series and started watching it on Nick at Nite in the 1980s. I gave the nod to the George Reeve version partially because I know the story, the type casting, and the circumstances of Reeve’s death. If you, intentionally or unintentionally, give your life for something because people can literally not see you as anything else, then you really do deserve the top spot in my opinion. But it is just that. I am only explaining why I gave George the slight nod. Christopher Reeves went on to have a career and when he died was known not only for his role, but also for the accident and his humanitarian efforts. It was not nearly as jarring as kids believing that ‘Superman’ had in fact died. I appreciate the comment as well as where you are coming from. Thanks 🙂

  3. Being born a decade after Christopher Reeve’s portrayal of Superman, I unfortunately cannot relate to his iconic status. This goes even more so for George Reeves. I did however love Tom Welling as Clark Kent. Even Cavill hasn’t beefed up to the perfect physique that Welling had near the end, which is essential when playing a character as large and powerful as the Man of Steel. His run as The Blur on Smallville was great; seeing Supes in a black trenchcoat over a black t-shirt with a white ‘S’ on his chest was a novel approach that was a great leadup to the suit. And even though it was disappointingly only for a brief moment, seeing him don the suit in the series finale was as epic as it comes, and is why he’s my #1 Man of Steel.

  4. This is a good list, though personally I’d put Dean Cain higher on the list. His performance is to me the quintessential Clark. But then again, I’ve always been in the camp that sees Clark as the real person and Superman as the mask, so I prefer performances that take that approach to the ones in the movies where Clark is the mask. And I’ve personally always found Christopher Reeve to be overrated. He’s good, but he’s not as amazing as people claim. And I never really got into Tom Welling’s portrayal, though I’m technically in the right age bracket.

    • I find it interesting that you didn’t like Tom Welling’s portrayal, considering he is the exact thing that you seem to love about the character. No one did a better job of portraying Clark Kent as the real person with Superman as the mask to hide his identity better than Tom Welling. Honestly, to if this had been an article about the Top Ten performances of Clark Kent, he would be #1 or #2, with Christopher Reeve being the other.

      These other guys nailed Superman, but nailing Clark Kent is a much harder thing.

      • I think with Tom Welling it is more that I really didn’t like Smallville. His portrayal was decent and he was probably the best thing on the show, but I didn’t like Smallville’s take on the Superman universe, so I can’t put him higher on my list.

        I wouldn’t say Reeve nailed Clark Kent. I liked his Superman, but I wasn’t a huge fan of his portrayal of the Clark part. He was a bit too timid, and it was clear that it was just an act to hide his identity as Superman.

        I still say Dean Cain did the best job of portraying Clark as the real person.

  5. Any list that has Christopher Reeve less than #1 is simply wrong, inaccurate, and self-indulgent. And putting George Reeves at #1

  6. Any list that has Christopher Reeve less than #1 is simply self-indulgent, inaccurate, and wrong. And putting George Reeves at #1 because he killed himself over the role is just stupid and heaping praise on someone that is inappropriate. Most people put Christopher Reeve at #1 and your reason for George Reeves is just sick.